The Surgical Strike
The Surgical Strike

The Surgical Strike

Let me start with… in my defense… the weather forecast was for “some rain”, and then a clear night.

This does not look promising for a night of astrophotography.

My backyard has limits when it comes to astrophotography. There’s just enough sky to get some R&D type work done, some proof of concept and equipment tweaking, and a little bit of sky to the East. But precious little sky at that, and way too close to Orlando Florida to be great for imaging beyond star clusters and narrow band emission targets (the Moon and Planets not withstanding).

Thankfully, I have a spot on some friends property down in Okeechobee county where a few of us have setup observatories. I recently sold my Sky Pod shed to make way for a small roll off roof, and so now I’m fibbing a little if I call it my observatory, but it’s at worst still a nice dark sky camp with a place to sleep, make meals, and clean up. It’s also in the middle of a God forsaken swamp… In the Florida Winter it’s a great place to spend up to a week or more at a time, but in the Summer it’s bug, frog, and… rain infested. Occasionally, the junkie needs his galactic photon fix, and I must go and brave the elements. These summer adventures we playfully call the “surgical strikes” at Stardust Ranch. You go down for a single night, trod through the mud, brave the bugs and make the best of it. Sometimes it’s even worth it!

The best guard dog money can’t buy!

My last surgical strike was quite successful, due to a great stroke of luck. For not the first time ever, the forecast for the night literally changed between the time I left my house, and the two hour drive down to my camp. It poured raining the entire way there. A friend on site working on his own setup, texted me to tell me he was leaving, and that it was pouring down raining there too. When I finally got to less than a mile from our gate and alligator infested moat (and no, I am totally not making that up), I received a text that his remote observatory had lost power in the storm. Great. Technically I can image on battery, but I will not survive the night without AC or power in my little “hut”.

In an enormous leap of faith, I decided to wait it out. The power came back on and it did quit raining long enough for me to uncover my pier (which still stands where my dome used to be), and pop on my Paramount MX+ and Esprit 150 that I had brought down in the back seat. I run these now with a Raspberry Pi connected to the mount, and a buried Ethernet cable allows me to remote into the Pi from my little “space ship” shed a few feet away. Inside my little control capsule, I have air conditioning, a bed, etc. This is a very nice way to image, and stay away from the bugs and skunks that frequent the area in the night.

Stardust Ranch… worth the wait.

I got distracted by a programming issue (hey, it’s what I do), and hourly I’d check outside. After my initial break to setup, it rained until after midnight, and at 2 a.m. it was hazy and foggy and I knew it was a lost cause. However… nature called just before 3 a.m., and when I went outside, I saw it was quite clear. Hey, I don’t want to waste the whole trip, I should do at least a couple of nice Milky Way shots with my fast f/1.4 lens. The results were quite good and I walked around in the dark looking for different compositions and suddenly it hit me. I had a telescope all ready to go! All I had to do was uncover it and do a quick TPoint run and focus. 15 minutes later I was ready to go, and with only 1 and a half hours till astronomical twilight. This was stupid… I should just go to sleep I thought. Wait, I need some messier objects for my poster project, and listen… if you only have an hour to shoot something, make it a globular cluster!  You can get good results on these even with moderate light pollution and a Moon in the sky. Under a dark sky here, only an hours worth of data even at f/7 should be plenty.

I picked through a few while my TPoint model ran (it was after all, a new “setup”) for a few minutes, and selected M55. It seems quite large at my 1050mm of focal length, and I had my FLI ML-16200 with anti dew strips on the cover plate (I find I really need these in the swamp). With the dew heater on the front turned all the way up, I turned it loose with TheSkyX LTI and had it refocus between filters and run till astronomical twilight before starting to take some dark frames. Having very little time to setup for a lengthy TPoint model, I just did a series of two minute unguided exposures, and this was plenty of time for an individual sub.

Messier 55, a very large globular in the Southern sky and well worth shooting!

I set an alarm and took a 2 hour nap.  When morning twilight was bright enough, I took some twilight flats racing the rising sun before the sky got too bright. This was what I came down here for after all.

Surgical strike. Drove over 4 hours total, spent the night in the middle of nowhere and with only a couple hours sleep, all for a nice Milky Way shot and a single run on a globular cluster. Was it worth it? Yes. This is what makes us astrophotographers tick. This is also why we want to punch anyone in the nose who says “wow, you must have a nice camera” when they see one of our photos. Yeah, it was the camera that did all the work, sure. 😉

Clear Skies on your next surgical strike!